Fall 1999, Volume 17.1
Lawrence Dunning has published three novels—Neutron Two Is Critical, Keller's Bomb, and Taking Liberty. His short fiction has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Descant, Rio Grande Review, and High Plains Literary Review.
The hired deejay slaps another disk on the left turntable, cues it, and segues expertly into the next tune—a harsh, metallic thing Robert doesn't remember having heard before, although most rock music sounds pretty much the same to him. His ten-year-old son Willy calls him a funky old fuddy. But forty-nine isn't old, is it? Robert waffles on the question. Of course there's next year—the big five-o—after which, he has been told, everything can be expected to fall apart.
Several of the terribly young-looking couples are dancing energetically to the music. Julie and Paul don't seem to be among them, although Robert has seen Julie dancing quite contentedly with several other young men. It seems odd to him that, married only an hour or two, Julie wouldn't want to reserve all her dances for Paul. But Paul doesn't seem to mind, either; Robert has seen him twirling several pretty girls around the floor, laughing and talking as though eager to make a good impression.
He looks around for Deborah but she has disappeared somewhere. Probably outside sneaking a cigarette, he imagines, though surely no one would have minded the bride's mother smoking inside the barn-like reception hall. There is, in fact, a thick blue haze hovering over the catering crew as they clean off the long, ruined tables of paper plates, plastic utensils, abandoned food.
Mr. Thomasson, Paul's father, comes over and sits beside Robert on a metal folding chair. Robert still cannot remember the man's first name, though introductions have been made at least twice this evening. Harry, he thinks, or maybe Howard. But he can't take the chance.
"Hi," Mr. Thomasson says. Maybe he's forgotten, too. "It all looks mighty pretty, don't it? I think the girls did a fine job decorating the place."
The "girls" were Deborah and Mr. Thomasson's wife, along with a few of Julie's friends, who had come out earlier in the day and worked themselves into a frenzy putting up the colored crepe ribbons and greenery brightened by a few wildflowers they'd picked illegally from the surrounding mountainside. It does look pretty and festive, Robert thinks, wondering why he doesn't feel happier about things.
"When do you plan to drive back?" he asks, meaning back to Casper, Wyoming, which is the Thomassons' home.
Mr. Thomasson plays with a glass of what looks like straight Scotch. "Probably leave tomorrow. The automobile business don't wait for weddings or the Fourth of July either one." He pronounces it automobile.
The talk of travel reminds Robert of three days ago when he took Elizabeth to the Denver airport and watched her board a plane for Dallas. She was flying back for her high school graduating class's twenty-fifth reunion over the Fourth of July weekend. The excitement evident in her eyes and voice had bothered him more than it should have; selfishly he wondered how she expected to enjoy herself that much without him. He wonders where she is now, this minute, and what she's doing. And he wishes they were together.
In one amazing gulp Mr. Thomasson empties more than half the contents of his glass. He's older than Robert by about ten years, pushing sixty but still so vigorous Robert envies him. He clasps Robert's arm and says, "I hope you don't mind that your daughter's new father-in-law sells cars for a living. Some people think it's a crummy profession, but let me tell you, it's sure as hell a necessary one."
Robert smiles, considering the word "profession." Mr. Thomasson smiles back at him, two suddenly and arbitrarily linked gentlemen sharing a private joke. After a while Mr. Thomasson leaves to refill his glass and find his wife. Robert sits alone for a moment, watching the wedding party in their handsome grey tuxedos and pink flowing dresses dance and flirt with the other young guests, all of them buoyant and carefree and happy looking.
Eventually he goes outside to look for Deborah and almost runs into Mrs. Thomasson. "I think your husband's looking for you," he says.
Mrs. Thomasson laughs. She has a nice, hoarse voice. "He's not looking for me, dear. If I know him—and I certainly ought to after thirty-five years—he's more likely looking for another drink. Sometimes I worry about Horace's drinking, but he won't listen to me."
So that was his name—Horace. "He seemed all right a minute ago," Robert says, realizing that must sound patronizing. When Mrs. Thomasson goes inside he continues down the poorly lighted path to the little outdoor chapel set in a grove of aspen trees. Some mountain church apparently held periodic services here, and a day camp operated several weeks in the summer, centered around the large kitchen in the reception hall. Julie and Paul found this place months ago and fell in love with it. Although Deborah, as the practical mother of the bride, had serious reservations about hauling everything up a dusty, twisting mountain road, she couldn't have been happier when she saw the place.
The wedding ceremony itself went off beautifully, earlier clouds giving way to a bright, warm late afternoon. Robert walks slowly among the rows of hand-split log pews, trying to remember the words of the service that Julie largely wrote herself. Nothing about anyone obeying anyone else, that was for sure. The minister was an inner-city social worker who seemed bewildered during most of the service. Music was provided by a boy with a scraggly beard who played the guitar, and his sister, thin as a reed, who sang perhaps only for herself in the high mountain air.
Now Robert stands where he stood earlier with Julie's arm linked through his, her face radiant enough to light a fire. He remembers the minister asking, "Who gives this woman?" And the reply that Julie and Deborah had worked out—"Her mother and I do"—that seemed all wrong because he and Deborah haven't lived together for almost a year. All things considered, he thinks she is maintaining rather well this special day. Once, during dinner, he looked over at her and saw the tightness around her mouth and a kind of sadness pulling the corners of her eyes far away. Sometimes, he remembered, this look was a prelude to either a momentary rage or deep, heartbreaking sobs, neither of which he ever understood. Just now, though, he feels an unexplainable need to find her.
A dark purple haze above the mountain-defined horizon is all that's left of the day's light, making walking over the rough terrain difficult. Scattered lights glimmer from the mountain village below. There's supposed to be a fireworks display this evening sponsored by the village merchants—nine o'clock, he thinks, but he has no idea what time it is now.
He circles the hill below the lights of the reception hall, searching for a familiar dark outline. Suddenly the brief spark of a cigarette miraculously illuminates Deborah's face not twenty yards away, and he calls to her.
"Deb? I've been looking all over for you. What are you doing out here?"
She doesn't immediately answer.
He walks to where she is and stands beside her, looking down at her glowing cigarette. Because it is beginning to be cold and she is shivering in her light summer gown, he somewhat self-consciously puts his arm around her shoulders and gently pulls her to him. Is she resisting? Or merely hesitating, trying to decide the protocol of separated parents at the marriage of their first child? He decides the latter, because it's what he's feeling, too. He bends down to kiss the top of her head, surprised that it still smells the way he remembers it.
"You're cold," he says.
"Isn't it beautiful, Deb? The lights down in the village look like Christmas decorations, a toy Christmas village."
"I was thinking that earlier. Remember how we always used to come up with the same idea? Sometimes we'd even say the words together."
"And then Julie or Willy would always want one of us to say `jinx.' I forget why you were supposed to."
"I think you got to hit the other person. No, wait—the other person couldn't talk afterwards until you released the jinx."
"That wouldn't have been much of a problem for either of us, would it?" Robert says, remembering all the long, painful silences that took the place of what should have been ordinary speech filling the hours and days of a more or less ordinary marriage. They used to talk, about their friends, their plans, her job as scenic designer for some of the more interesting dioramas at the natural history museum, his job at the newspaper. But over the years those things seemed less and less important as topics of discussion, and the talk dwindled.
It was one of the things Deborah finally began raging at him about: "You never talk to me anymore! I might as well be a rotted-out tree trunk in the wilderness somewhere!" And he would say, "You know that isn't true, Deb, I talk to you all the time." That made her even more furious, because they both knew they hardly talked at all, and even when they did it was about the bills or the children's lives, never about themselves.
Deborah bends down away from Robert's arm to scratch her ankle. When she stands, his hands are in his pockets. "Did you see Julie inside?" she asks him. "Did she look like she was having fun?"
"She seemed fine. Dancing her head off—sometimes even with Paul. I think they're both a little drunk."
"I seem to be getting there myself," Deborah says. "That's why I came out here—I thought the fresh air might clear my head."
"Me, too," Robert says, knowing they're both lying.
"What about poor Willy? The last time I saw him he was sitting in a corner looking very glum."
Willy, Robert thinks, is far too serious and sensitive for his own good. He has taken the separation very badly; his teachers say he doesn't seem to be trying, and there've been a couple of nasty fights with classmates that required Robert and Deborah to confer with the principal.
"He must have decided to get in on the action," Robert says. "You know that little blond-haired girl, the Thomassons' daughter's kid? Willy must have gotten over his shyness, or maybe she led him astray. Anyway, they were dancing every dance together and they were holding onto each other as though they were engaged. Everybody thought it was the cutest thing they'd ever seen."
"I knew he had it in him," Deborah says, "but I hope he holds off on the wedding awhile. I don't think I'm up to another one anytime soon."
"You've worked yourself silly, Deb. Everything was as pretty and perfect as it could be. The dresses, the decorations, the food, everything." He puts his arm around her again, feeling the coldness of her skin. "I know Julie appreciates it—she'd damned well better."
"Wasn't she beautiful, Robert? And wasn't Paul handsome? You men in your tuxedos all looked great enough to be in some Fred Astaire movie—the only thing missing was the top hats. Oh, Robert, I know they're going to be ecstatically happy forever and ever and give us lots of beautiful grandbabies!"
"I can do without the grandchildren, thank you. I feel old enough as it is. But you're right, she was beautiful. You know what I was thinking after I played my little part in the ceremony?"
"Your big part, you mean. No, what?"
"I was remembering bits and pieces of Julie's life. I remembered the way she looked right after she was born, and wondering how the nurse could hold onto anything that slippery. And the time she swallowed the end off a whistle and would have choked to death if you hadn't held her upside down and pounded her little back. And all the times, all those years, she sat with me in the easy chair and I read to her, or later when she read to me. All those silent prayers that she'd grow up to have a wonderful life and be whatever she wanted to be, and I knew she could do it because she was the brightest kid there ever was. Other things, too—the great report cards, the boys…"
"Funny, I was thinking about her old boyfriends, too. I don't know why, but I remembered the first real grown-up date she ever had, and how pretty she looked in the dress we'd bought her the day before, and how the boy never showed up. I wanted to kill him. You didn't seem all that upset about it, but I would've gladly killed him. I can't even remember his name now."
"We seem to remember different things," Robert says.
"Maybe. The good times, the bad… You know what else I was thinking about while that adolescent hermaphrodite played the guitar?"
"I was thinking about our own wedding. Remember the blinding snowstorm?"
"That should have told us something," he says, and immediately regrets saying it—he can sense Deborah staring at him in the dark.
"I think there were only five or six people in the chapel. I wore a blue suit and a silly little hat with a veil. The minister had a bad cold and kept sneezing."
"I remember," Robert says, although truthfully he has forgotten most of the details.
A thin tail of light arcs through the sky far off to the south. "Did you see it?" he asks her. "I'm not sure whether it was fireworks or a meteor, but it wasn't from the village." "What time were they going to start?"
"I think nine. I can't see my watch."
She takes a deep puff on her cigarette and pulls his wrist over under the brief flare of the tobacco. "It's about time," she says. "I thought some of the others would be out looking."
"They're too happy inside, drinking and pinching each other's bottoms. Hey, why don't I go get us some champagne and we can watch the fireworks from right here? No one's going to miss us for a few more minutes."
"Champagne always gives me a terrible headache the next morning."
"Yes, I remember," he says.
"But what the hell—it's not every day your daughter gets married. Sure, let's have more champagne. And bring the blanket from the car," she adds. "It seems to have gotten quite cold."
He walks back to the reception hall, where the din of recorded music and loud, drunken laughter is overpowering. He sees Julie talking with several of Paul's relatives and Deborah's best friend—all women. Julie, Julie, he thinks, what are you doing? Already she's behaving like an old married woman with social obligations.
Farther into the room he glances over toward a dark corner and sees Paul—as of five o'clock this afternoon his son-in-law Paul—in earnest conversation with a strikingly pretty girl, and he wonders briefly whether the bastard is already setting up a sleazy extramarital liaison. I'll kill him, Robert thinks, and then laughs at himself for being ridiculous. It isn't as though Julie and Paul just met; in fact they lived together for more than a year in Wyoming while Paul finished the course work for his zoology degree at the university in Laramie. He would have graduated sooner, but took a year off to roam Europe alone. Robert is jealous—he always dreamed of making an extended European tour on his own but never quite managed it. Paul is pleasant enough, Robert supposes, if perhaps more concerned with his own day-to-day affairs than with Julie's.
The pretty girl with Paul reminds him of a younger Elizabeth, who is one of the most beautiful women he's ever known. And oddly, on occasion, one of the most foul-mouthed. He remembers how it used to annoy him when she'd smile and tell him, "You're full of shit, love." Or, more seriously, when he displeased her, "Get lost, asshole."
At the moment he misses hearing her say those things. And he misses the long, boozy afternoons and the incredibly intense love-making. He even misses all those times he waits for her—Lord, how he waits, in all kinds of weather. And when she finally shows up she's never sorry, which infuriates him even more until she smiles brightly and kisses him, and then it's somehow all right.
The only really bad times are those few when he knows she's been with another man. Not that she lies about it—quite the contrary. She almost brags to him, as if to let him know that other men still find her attractive (which they do), and she wants to make him jealous. Perhaps she herself needs to be reassured of this occasionally—perhaps all women on the doubtful side of forty do, though Elizabeth looks years younger than she is.
The question is, does he love her? Does he love anyone?
Remembering his mission, he goes to the bar and asks the bartender if he can buy a bottle of champagne.
"No, sir," the bartender says. "Not you, Mr. Austin. You're kind of a guest of honor here tonight, you and Mrs. Austin. You want a bottle of champagne, you got it. How `bout two, one for each of you?"
"One's plenty, thank you very much," Robert says, shoving a couple of bills into the beer mug that serves as a tip collector. He tucks the bottle under his arm and starts to make his way back out of the reception hall. Another young man has apparently taken over the pretty girl in the corner, and Paul is coming over, leading a friend who seems very serious, very intense amid the general gaiety of the room.
Paul introduces the young man to Robert and they shake hands. "Wally wants to work for a newspaper," Paul says. "I thought maybe you could give him a few pointers." And to Wally he says, "Mr. Austin is an editor at the Denver Post."
"What kind of editor?" Wally asks. He has a thin face and dark slanting eyebrows like Mr. Spock. "Editorial page, or what?"
"Nothing so grand, I'm afraid," Robert says. "I'm a copy editor—I edit and rewrite what the reporters turn in. Sometimes it's pretty bad."
"I'm doing graduate journalism," Wally says. "I have a lot of great investigative stuff in mind that I want to pursue, and I don't want some editor pissing around with it, changing my words, my meaning. I get enough of that in class."
"That's what class is for, isn't it?" Robert says. In fact, he can remember feeling the same way Wally does back when he was in journalism school. He had known, then, that he was destined to turn the journalistic world on its smug, pompous ear—one of those glorious dreams of youth that turn out to be simply an analog of ignorance.
Julie comes up then and puts her arms around Paul and Robert. She's still as radiant looking as she was during the ceremony. "What are you three hunks discussing?" she asks them.
"Important matters of state," Paul volunteers.
"Broads," says Wally.
"Nothing much," Robert says. "You know something? I haven't danced with you yet. Want to humor an old man?"
"I don't see any old men here," Julie says. "Of course I'd love to dance with you, Daddy."
They move out onto the dance floor, the champagne bottle still dangling awkwardly from his hand now clasped around Julie's waist. Robert imagines that everyone in the room is staring at them. Thank God the disk jockey has accidentally put on a reasonably slow, danceable tune. He wishes he had given the bottle to Paul to hold.
"You're a good dancer," Julie says. "Why didn't you and Mom ever go dancing?"
"I guess because I think it makes me look foolish," he says. "Like an elephant trying to ride a bicycle."
"Oh, you!" she says, laughing at him exactly the way she used to when she was a little girl and he would tease her unmercifully, loving her so much his heart ached.
As they glide smoothly around the dance floor, the champagne gently bumping against Julie's bottom, he remembers the only time he and Elizabeth ever danced in public. It was on the deserted flagstone terrace of their favorite French restaurant, a place not meant for dancing at all. The weather was good and the night magnificent. Entirely alone, they ate and drank and talked leisurely as soft music from a hidden speaker surrounded them. Sometime between the entrée and dessert he asked Elizabeth to dance. They rose from the table and moved together slowly to the music, their lips occasionally touching. A waiter stepped out onto the terrace, glanced at them, and discreetly retreated inside. When the music was over they sat down again and resumed whatever conversation they were having before, both aware that something magical had happened that probably could never be repeated.
Julie pulls back in his arms so she can focus better on his face. "How's Mom?" she asks. "I haven't seen her in a while."
"She's outside. We're about to drink this champagne and watch the fireworks, if there are any."
"That sounds nice—nice and friendly." A slight frown crosses her face. "How are you two getting along?"
Robert shakes his head. "I don't know. Being here tonight, talking to her, remembering you when you were growing up…it's like looking at pictures from an old photo album that have spilled on the floor, everything jumbled up, things and people and places you can't quite fit together properly. Does that make sense?"
"I guess so," Julie says, still pensive. "One more question that's none of my business—but it's my wedding day and I can do anything I want. Are you and Mom ever going to get back together?"
"I can't tell you that," Robert says. "Ever is a very long time—longer than I can even begin to think about."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to pry. It's just, you know…"
"Yeah, I know."
When the music ends he kisses Julie and, waving the champagne bottle at her, makes his way out of the reception hall toward where he parked the Buick. He and Deborah and Willy drove up together from Denver in his car, and they agreed to stay together, in the same room, in a small chalet down in the village—"Just like we used to on vacation," Willy said pointedly, watching his parents. Willy is often painfully blunt.
With the big army blanket from the trunk over his arm, Robert carefully makes his way out to where he remembers leaving Deborah. On the way he sees a colored flare burst up from the valley, and then another, and he realizes the fireworks display from the village has started.
"You've missed the beginning," Deborah says when he finds her.
They spread out the blanket on the cold, mossy ground as though they are about to have a picnic. When they're seated, he peels down the foil cap of the champagne, twists off the wire mesh holding the cork in place, and forces the cork loose in an explosive rush of foam. "I forgot to bring glasses," he apologizes. "We'll have to drink out of the bottle."
"That's all right," she says, but it doesn't sound as though she means it. She takes the bottle from him and wraps one edge of the blanket around her shoulders. "What happened—did you pick up some floozy in the dance hall and forget all about your poor thirsty wife?"
"The floozy was your daughter," he says. "I danced with her—it seemed the least a father could do."
"I'm sorry, that was very nice of you," Deborah says. "I know how much you hate to dance."
Again he remembers the night on the terrace with Elizabeth. What is he doing here now, drinking champagne with a wife he doesn't live with? And Elizabeth so far away at her reunion at some country club in Dallas, drinking too much, dancing with every man who asks her, reveling in her freedom.
For an instant he can see her clearly in his mind—circling the dance floor in the gorgeous, daring one-strap velvet gown she bought for the occasion, with some old boyfriend from school days who, having flown in from San Diego for the reunion, has just told Elizabeth he's divorced and that his motel room is way lonely. The boyfriend is rubbing little circles into the bare skin of her back and nuzzling her cheek, creating a hot, wet patch between them. "I adore you, Liz, I always have," he whispers into her ear, and Elizabeth, leading him off toward the bar, doesn't look at all displeased.
The sonofabitch, Robert thinks. Somewhat roughly he grabs the champagne bottle back from Deborah and takes a long, choking swallow of bubbles. He catches his breath and tilts his head back for another long drink, aligning the bottom rim of the bottle with the center of the Big Dipper.
"You turning into an alcoholic?" Deborah asks him. It sounds like a genuine question.
But he knows it's possible. Spending as much time as he does with Elizabeth, he knows it's entirely possible that he's losing control of his personal habits, and that soon he'll be heading toward skid row, living under bridges, dumpster-diving for food. He's always told Elizabeth that she drinks too much, and she's always laughed at him and called him a prude. "You know how loving I get when I'm drunk," she sometimes tells him, and it's true, he does know. But this rarely cheers him up as much as she expects it to.
Robert waits until Deborah has a cigarette lighted, then hands her the bottle. She always smokes when she drinks. He settles in closer to the warmth of her body and pulls a corner of the scratchy blanket across his shoulders. "I'm freezing," he says.
"Big brave man," Deborah says, patting his thigh in a familiar gesture he remembers from the old days, a year or so ago.
A burst of colored lights explodes in the air below them, ending in spiraling red curlicues. "Ooh-ahh," she says, and they both laugh quickly, sharing a memory. "Ooh-ahh" is the exclamation the children started using at Fourth of July fireworks displays long ago, and it has become a synonym, for the whole family, of anything especially grand and showy. Often it's used as a noun, as in "That's an ooh-ahh"; or, for something not quite so grand, "That's just an ooh."
"Oh, God, I hope Julie has a good life," Deborah says, her voice quivering on the edge of exhaustion, even hysteria. "So many things happen these days…We had a good life, didn't we, Robert? Didn't we?"
"Then what went wrong? Was it my fault?"
"Not your fault," he says carefully. "Not mine either, I think. As you said, things happen."
Conscious of her hand still on his thigh, he reaches around her shoulder for the bottle of champagne and for a moment holds it there, making no attempt to drink. The night has a crisp clarity so vast it's frightening.
"My God, look at that!" he says, awed by an especially brilliant burst of every color there is, a huge perfect sphere of flaming points and rays that fills the sky over their heads as well as the valley below. Individual balls of light seem to hang motionless, defying all ordinary laws of gravity, balance, trajectory. He wants this moment of passionate spectacle to last and last, long past the point where the particles inevitably cool and drift away, only one or two rekindling briefly in a vain attempt to recapture their former glorious fire.